Courtesy Arizona Republic
YARNELL, Ariz. - Nineteen elite firefighters who died battling a fast-moving wildfire here Sunday in the country's worst wildfire disaster in 80 years have been hailed by President Obama as "heroes."
In a statement released early Monday as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said, "Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters."
Gusting winds and dry grass fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses have been destroyed.
Names of the 19 firefighters:
-- Andrew Ashcraft, 29
-- KevinWoyjeck, 21
-- Anthony Rose, 23
-- Eric Marsh, 43
-- Christopher MacKenzie, 30
-- Robert Caldwell, 23
-- Clayton Whitted , 28
-- ScottNorris, 28
-- Dustin Deford, 24
-- SeanMisner, 26
-- Garret Zuppiger, 27
-- Travis Carter, 31
-- GrantMcKee, 21
-- TravisTurbyfill, 27
-- JesseSteed, 36
-- Wade Parker, 22
-- Joe Thurston, 32
-- William Warneke, 25
-- John Percin, 24
READ: Who Were The Granite Mountain Hot Shots?
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based in the small town of Prescott, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time, authorities said.
The deaths plunged the town into mourning, and Arizona's governor called it "as dark a day I can remember" and ordered flags flown at half-staff.
"We are heartbroken about what happened," President Barack Obama said while on a visit to Africa. He predicted the tragedy will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.
The windblown, lightning-sparked fire which had exploded to about 13 square miles by Monday morning also destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department said.
Residents huddled in shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
The hotshot team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.
As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with a tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said.
"It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Fraijo said.
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their shelters.
The flames apparently enveloped the fire shelters. Autopsies were scheduled to determine how the firefighters died.
Gov. Jan Brewer's voice caught several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School.
"I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today," she said.
On the bleachers, two women held each other and wept into tissues. An elderly man clutched a wooden walking stick and gazed at the ground. Many of the residents were red-eyed, and listened with their hands over their mouths.
A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based. Prescott resident Keith Gustafson showed up and placed 19 water bottles in the shape of a heart.